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Spotlight Report

  Cardinal Law celebrating Palm Sunday Mass on Boston Common in 1993. (Globe Staff File Photo / Evan Richman)

Scandal darkens a bright career

By Jack Thomas, Globe Staff, 4/14/2002

Law in 1984, one year before his elevation to cardinal. (Globe Staff File Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

Bernard Law: priest to cardinal

 Photo gallery
Bernard Law through the years

For the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, the future never seemed more promising than it did that spring night in 1985 in the spacious courtyard at the American seminary in Rome.

Hundreds of Boston's elite of all faiths waited in line, four abreast, for as long as two hours to express affection for the man who had just become the fourth archbishop of Boston to be elevated to the rank of cardinal, Bernard Francis Law.

It was a worldwide optimism and it was expressed by Law himself: ''This is the strongest moment for the church since the Reformation.''

Wearing the small red skullcap and a new, red-trimmed black cassock with red sash, Law stood on an Oriental carpet near a reflecting pool, welcomed guests, and basked in great expectations. From time to time, the cardinal leaned down to his mother, Helen, in her wheelchair, to whisper encouragement.

Standing among such Boston dignitaries as Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, former governor Edward J. King, and Senate President William M. Bulger, the cardinal was asked to pose for a photograph.

Of course, he said, but only if they would do him the honor of singing an old Irish song, ''A Mother's Love Is a Blessing.''

And they did, their strong Irish tenors rising above the walls to the streets of the ancient Italian city.

''That moment made you feel like a million bucks,'' recalls Edward Cunningham, 75, a parishioner at St. Bridget's in Framingham who is active in Catholic circles and was in Rome for the event.

Although some of the other new cardinals were returning to dioceses riven by dissension, Law acknowledged that in Boston he felt no such threat. ''Rather,'' he said, ''I have a sense of being loved and accepted.''

As events would unfold, however, Law's pastorate would prove more arduous and, in the end, more damaging to the church than would have seemed plausible that night in Rome. Today, 17 years later, in the aftermath of one of the worst scandals ever to hit an archdiocese in America, as Roman Catholics are challenged to rebuild the reputation of their church, many also wonder when it was, exactly, that all the dreams and aspirations descended into purgatory.

It was a circuitous route that brought Law to Boston, first to college, then to the chancery.

Born Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, the only child of a flier whose career in the Air Force and commercial aviation required the family to live in six locations in his growing years, Law had a happy boyhood but no permanent home until he settled into the church.

His father was a Roman Catholic, his mother a Presbyterian who converted to Roman Catholicism, and Law once said that what he admired in his parents was their love of people and places and their willingness to be part of whatever place they were in.

The same quality was apparent in their son at Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where he was elected president of the senior class by a student body that was predominantly black. That positive experience of racial harmony later induced him to begin his priesthood in the South and, through the years, no doubt contributed to his reputation for building bridges to and among minorities.

From the Virgin Islands, Law migrated north to Cambridge, to Harvard and to Adams House, where he roomed with a Southern Baptist and two Jewish students and buckled down to the study of Medieval European history.

Law decided in his senior year that his vocation would be the priesthood. After graduation he studied for two years at a Benedictine monastery in Louisiana, then in 1955 began six years of study at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. So rigorous was the regimen that of 20 seminarians, only 12 completed the course.

Ordained on May 21, 1961, Law was assigned to St. Paul's in Vicksburg, Miss., where the coals of racial unrest were smoldering. In his role as editor of the diocesan newspaper, Law was aggressive in addressing racial issues largely ignored by local news outlets.

''To have been a part of that significant moment of our history is in itself a grace, a gift,'' he wrote in his 25th anniversary report at Harvard.

In 1973, he became bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, and as he acknowledged in his Harvard report: ''I am very happy in my ministry, and am delighted at being planted in the beautiful Ozarks.''

From the beautiful Ozarks, however, Law would soon be transplanted by a sequence of events that would alter the future of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

In 1983, after the death of Cardinals Humberto Medeiros of Boston at age 67 and Terence Cooke of New York at 62, and with the impending retirement of two other American cardinals, Pope John Paul II had an unprecedented opportunity to restructure the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Not since 1808, when the Vatican had created four dioceses - New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and what is now Louisville - had there been such an opportunity.

Chosen by the pope to manage the Archdiocese of Boston, Law arrived at Logan Airport Jan. 27, 1984, and told civic and religious leaders waiting to meet him that he had come to Boston to establish his final home.

In what may have been an indicator of the adversarial relationship he would develop with the news media in Boston, he turned to reporters and said: By the way, Springfield, Missouri, is not in the South. ''We think of it as the West.''

And in a gesture of political savvy, he drew applause and laughter when he said that he had been reminded by the apostolic delegate that after Boston, there is only heaven.

No one was surprised one year later when Law was ordained a cardinal, and after the ancient ritual in Rome and after the ceremonies and after the parties, Law came home to Boston.

He came home to shepherd 2 million Roman Catholics in the third largest diocese in the United States. He came home to a pastorate in which he would immerse himself in not only issues of relevance to the contemporary church - abortion, AIDS education, homosexual unions, and the management of schools and hospitals - but also in such knotty political issues as referenda, state budgets, foreign policy, and even appointments to the Supreme Court, all of which gave rise to accusations that the cardinal was sometimes attentive to politics at the expense of his priesthood.

From the beginning, many progressive Catholics complained privately that Law was unreceptive and even hostile toward advocates of women's ordination, gay rights, and reform of the church. His administration has banned advocates of women's ordination from meeting on church property, crusaded against same-sex marriages, and repeatedly encouraged Catholics to vote against political candidates who support abortion rights.

''In terms of connecting to Boston,'' says Paul LaCamera, general manager of WCVB-TV, Channel 5, and vice-chairman of the board of Catholic Charities, ''many of us may have been looking for someone more like Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago, who had Cardinal Law's passion for social and economic justice but who was open to discussing the need for change within the church.''

In his 13-year pastorate in Boston, Medeiros spoke against the nuclear arms race and condemned drug abuse and racial conflict. But Law has expanded the stage.

As the senior American Catholic prelate and one of the pope's strongest American allies, he has enjoyed access to the White House, dined with President Bush in Maine, played a central role in formulating important foreign and domestic policies for American bishops, and been quoted often about a range of international issues that were barely tangential to the church.

Even as the cardinal tended to the day-to-day management of the diocese, its churches, schools, and hospitals - and even as he grew in stature nationally and globally in the hierarchy of the church - the malignancy of sexual abuse by priests was infecting parishes throughout his dioceses.

His public image, however, continued to shine. Many priests and lay people tell fond stories of occasions on which Law has ministered to the sick or reached out to the poor. He has been a consistent advocate of affordable housing, raised millions for victims of various disasters in Latin America, spoken against anti-Semitism, and worked hard to build bridges between Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox Christians.

''For Cardinal Law, in the Jewish community, there is a reverence,'' says Harold Schwartz, past chairman of the New England region of the Anti-Defamation League. ''People revere him because of his position, you know, kissed the ring and the whole bit, but Cardinal Law really walks the walk. We have built so many bridges between the Catholic and Jewish communities, and he has always been sensitive. Once, when we went to the chancery for a meeting, he made sure the food he served was kosher. He's always been so warm and receptive that if I see him coming, I have no problem walking up and hugging him. Now? There's the reality that something went afoul, that there was a coverup, and it's terrible.''

What many see as contradictions in Law prompted the historian Thomas O'Connor of Boston College to include what he calls a trick question in interviews he conducted for his book, ''Boston Catholics,'' published in 1988.

''When I'd interview priests and others,'' says O'Connor, ''I'd say that when people are asked for a phrase to describe Cardinal O'Connell, they say he was aloof or pompous, and that Cardinal Cushing was ornery or cantankerous, and that Cardinal Medeiros was humble or pious. But when I asked people to describe Cardinal Law in a word or two, I never - not once - got an answer, and why? Because it's so hard to pigeon-hole him. I don't mean this in a negative way, but he's a very subtle, very enigmatic character with many dimensions to his personality.''

His financial record is mixed, and certain to be dominated by the astronomical cost of settling lawsuits brought by victims of clergy abuse. Law's claims in the past that he brought church budgets into balance are no longer valid. Church agencies have reduced their staffs. The Pilot, the archdiocese newspaper, is giving up its downtown office space because it can no longer afford the rent. Giving to Catholic Charities, the social-service network created by the archdiocese but operated independently, is down significantly.

In injecting his views into public debate about matters having little to do with the church, in particular his campaign against Margaret Marshall's nomination to the state Supreme Court, Law has struck many as arrogant, even a bully.

''There is an aloofness and lack of warmth,'' says LaCamera.

O'Connor recalls a story that suggests the cardinal also lacks a sense of humor.

As he was writing his book on Boston Catholics, O'Connor was invited by the cardinal to breakfast at the chancery with 15 priests and laity from the cardinal's inner circle.

The cardinal introduced O'Connor, described the book, and then, as O`Connor recalls: ''The cardinal said that he did not want the book to be a dull, heavy work, that he wanted to lighten it, and so he looked around the table and he invited anyone to tell a joke, a funny story or an amusing anecdote about the cardinal. And do you know what?'' says O'Connor. ''There wasn't a peep. No one could think of anything funny about him.''

In private meetings in recent weeks, many Catholics have moved to distance themselves from if not the cardinal himself, then from the scandal.

''The concern of people in Catholic Charities,'' says LaCamera, ''is that it's an organization that does the Lord's work, its primary constituency being the poor. The backlash because of this has been profound because people confuse the work of Catholic Charities with the administration of the archdiocese. So, yes, we're worried about the impact on the funding for Catholic Charities.''

Yet Cunningham, the parishioner from St. Bridget's who went to Rome for the cardinal's elevation, may speak for many Catholics who are convinced the church will recover.

''I'm brokenhearted,'' he says, ''but the church is going to be around for another 2,000 years. It breaks my heart that all of this has happened, not to the cardinal but to the children, the victims. But I still have my strong faith.''

Despite the cardinal's assertion that he will not resign, he nevertheless faces mandatory retirement in 2006, and many already wonder about his legacy. As a student of Boston and the Roman Catholic Church, O'Connor provides a historical perspective.

''If this depressing event had not occurred, he would be remembered for having come to Boston and having restored order and stability and harmony into the archdiocese because, remember, in the decade before he came, Boston was a badly divided city with hatred, violence, racism, the busing crisis. The city was terribly divided. He came in with Ray Flynn, who I believe did a good job as mayor in restoring political and social order, and in a sense Law has done the same thing in religious circles.

''We often see him in public as pontificating, but behind the scenes, he has a warm relationship with a lot of minority communities that people didn't know about. He has opened pastorates to the new Bostonians. He has worked closely in bringing in Latinos, Haitians, and he has set up groups to work with these people. There are several Vietnamese churches now, and he has assigned a nun to work with the new Irish. He reaches out.

''Unfortunately the good he has done in terms of social programs and low-cost housing and with the hospitals - all of that will be clouded over by this [scandal] in the same way that the resignation of Nixon overshadows his accomplishments in foreign affairs and that Clinton's sexual problems overshadows his economic achievements.

''The 17 years of what Law has achieved in the archdiocese, tragically, is going to be forgotten in the flick of an eye, and what he will be remembered for is this terrible human tragedy.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2002.
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